April 28th, we ran the Hufflepuff Unconference in Berkeley, at the MIRI/CFAR office common space.
There's room for improvement in how the Unconference could have been run, but it succeeded the core things I wanted to accomplish:
- Established common knowledge of what problems people were actually interested in working on
- We had several extensive discussions of some of those problems, with an eye towards building solutions
- Several people agreed to work together towards concrete plans and experiments to make the community more friendly, as well as build skills relevant to community growth. (With deadlines and one person acting as project manager to make sure real progress was made)
- We agreed to have a followup unconference in roughly three months, to discuss how those plans and experiments were going
Rough notes are available here. (Thanks to Miranda, Maia and Holden for takin really thorough notes)
This post will summarize some of the key takeaways, some speeches that were given, and my retrospective thoughts on how to approach things going forward.
But first, I'd like to cover a question that a lot of people have been asking about:
What does this all mean for people outside of the Bay?
The answer depends.
I'd personally like it if the overall rationality community got better at social skills, empathy, and working together, sticking with things that need sticking with (and in general, better at recognizing skills other than metacognition). In practice, individual communities can only change in the ways the people involved actually want to change, and there are other skills worth gaining that may be more important depending on your circumstances.
Does Project Hufflepuff make sense for your community?
If you're worried that your community doesn't have an interest in any of these things, my actual honest answer is that doing something "Project Hufflepuff-esque" probably does not make sense. I did not choose to do this because I thought it was the single-most-important thing in the abstract. I did it because it seemed important and I knew of a critical mass of people who I expected to want to work on it.
If you're living in a sparsely populated area or haven't put a community together, the first steps do not look like this, they look more like putting yourself out there, posting a meetup on Less Wrong and just *trying things*, any things, to get something moving.
If you have enough of a community to step back and take stock of what kind of community you want and how to strategically get there, I think this sort of project can be worth learning from. Maybe you'll decide to tackle something Project-Hufflepuff-like, maybe you'll find something else to focus on. I think the most important thing is have some kind of vision for something you community can do that is worth working together, leveling up to accomplish.
Community Unconferences as One Possible Tool
Community unconferences are a useful tool to get everyone on the same page and spur them on to start working on projects, and you might consider doing something similar.
They may not be the right tool for you and your group - I think they're most useful in places where there's enough people in your community that they don't all know each other, but do have enough existing trust to get together and brainstorm ideas.
If you have a sense that Project Hufflepuff is worthwhile for your community but the above disclaimers point towards my current approach not making sense for you, I'm interested in talking about it with you, but the conversation will look less like "Ray has ideas for you to try" and more like "Ray is interested in helping you figure out what ideas to try, and the solution will probably look very different."
Since I'm actually very uncertain about a lot of this and see it as an experiment, I don't think it makes sense to push for any of the ideas here to directly change Less Wrong itself (at least, yet). But I do think a lot of these concepts translate to online spaces in some fashion, and I think it'd make sense to try out some concepts inspired by this in various smaller online subcommunities.
Table of Contents:
I. Introduction Speech
- Why are we here?
- The Mission: Something To Protect
- The Invisible Badger, or "What The Hell Is a Hufflepuff?"
- Meta Meetups Usually Suck. Let's Try Not To.
II. Common Knowledge
- What Do People Actually Want?
- Lightning Talks
III. Discussing the Problem (Four breakout sessions)
- Welcoming Newcomers
- How to handle people who impose costs on others?
- Styles of Leadership and Running Events
- Making Helping Fun (or at least lower barrier-to-entry)
IV. Planning Solutions and Next Actions
V. Final Words
I. Introduction: It Takes A Village to Save a World
(A more polished version of my opening speech from the unconference)
[Epistemic Status: This is largely based on intuition, looking at what our community has done and what other communities seem to be able to do. I'm maybe 85% confident in it, but it is my best guess]
In 2012, I got super into the rationality community in New York. I was surrounded by people passionate about thinking better and using that thinking to tackle ambitious projects. And in 2012 we all decided to take on really hard projects that were pretty likely to fail, because the expected value seemed high, and it seemed like even if we failed we'd learn a lot in the process and grow stronger.
That happened - we learned and grew. We became adults together, founding companies and nonprofits and creating holidays from scratch.
But two years later, our projects were either actively failing, or burning us out. Many of us became depressed and demoralized.
There was nobody who was okay enough to actually provide anyone emotional support. Our core community withered.
I ended up making that the dominant theme of the 2014 NYC Solstice, with a call-to-action to get back to basics and take care each other.
I also went to the Berkeley Solstice that year. And... I dunno. In the back of my mind I was assuming "Berkeley won't have that problem - the Bay area has so many people, I can't even imagine how awesome and thriving a community they must have." (Especially since the Bay kept stealing all the movers and shakers of NYC).
The theme of the Bay Solstice turned out to be "Hey guys, so people keep coming to the Bay, running on a dream and a promise of community, but that community is not actually there, there's a tiny number of well-connected people who everyone is trying to get time with, and everyone seems lonely and sad. And we don't even know what to do about this."
Next year, in 2015, that theme in the Berkeley Solstice was revisited.
So I think that was the initial seed of what would become Project Hufflepuff - noticing that it's not enough to take on cool projects, that it's not enough to just get a bunch of people together and call it a community. Community is something you actively tend to. Insofar as Maslow's hierarchy is real, it's a foundation you need before ambitious projects can be sustainable.
There are other pieces of the puzzle - different lenses that, I believe, point towards a Central Thing. Some examples:
Group houses, individualism and coordination.
I've seen several group houses where, when people decide it no longer makes sense to live in the house, they... just kinda leave. Even if they've literally signed a lease. And everyone involved (the person leaving and those remain), instinctively act as if it's the remaining people's job to fill the leaver's spot, to make rent.
And the first time, this is kind of okay. But then each subsequent person leaving adds to a stressful undertone of "OMG are we even going to be able to afford to live here?". It eventually becomes depressing, and snowballs into a pit that makes newcomers feel like they don't WANT to move into the house.
Nowadays I've seen some people explicitly building into the roommate agreement a clear expectation of how long you stay and who's responsibility it is to find new roommates and pay rent in the meantime. But it's disappointing to me that this is something we needed, that we weren't instinctively paying to attention to how we were imposing costs on each other in the first place. That when we violated a written contract, let alone a handshake agreement, that we did not take upon ourselves (or hold each other accountable), to ensure we could fill our end of the bargain.
Friends, and Networking your way to the center
This community puts pressure on people to improve. It's easier to improve when you're surrounded by ambitious people who help or inspire each other level up. There's a sense that there's some cluster of cool-people-who-are-ambitious-and-smart who've been here for a while, and... it seems like everyone is trying to be friends with those people.
It also seems like people just don't quite get that friendship is a skill, that adult friendships in City Culture can be hard, and it can require special effort to make them happen.
I'm not entirely sure what's going on here - it doesn't make sense to say anyone's obligated to hang out with any particular person (or obligated NOT to), but if 300 people aren't getting the connection they want it seems like somewhere people are making a systematic mistake.
(Since the Unconference, Maia has tackled this particular issue in more detail)
The Mission - Something To Protect
As I see it, the Rationality Community has three things going on: Truth. Impact. And "Being People".
In some sense, our core focus is the practice of truthseeking. The thing that makes that truthseeking feel important is that it's connected to broader goals of impacting the world. And the thing that makes this actually fun and rewarding enough to stick with is a community that meets our needs, where can both flourish as individuals and find the relationships we want.
I think we have made major strides in each of those areas over the past seven years. But we are nowhere near done.
Different people have different intuitions of which of the three are most important. Some see some of them as instrumental, or terminal. There are people for whom Truthseeking is *the point*, and they'd have been doing that even if there wasn't a community to help them with it, and there are people for whom it's just one tool of many that helps them live their life better or plan important projects.
I've observed a tendency to argue about which of these things is most important, or what tradeoffs are worth making. Inclusiveness verses high standards. Truth vs action. Personal happiness vs high acheivement.
I think that kind of argument is a mistake.
We are falling woefully short on all of these things.
We need something like 10x our current capacity for seeing, and thinking. 10x our capacity for doing. 10x our capacity for *being healthy people together.*
I say "10x" not because all these things are intrinsically equal. The point is not to make a politically neutral push to make all the things sound nice. I have no idea exactly how far short we're falling on each of these because the targets are so far away I can't even see the end, and we are doing a complicated thing that doesn't have clear instructions and might not even be possible.
The point is that all of these are incredibly important, and if we cannot find a way to improve *all* of these, in a way that is *synergistic* with each other, then we will fail.
There is a thing at the center of our community. Not all of us share the exact same perspective on it. For some of us it's not the most important thing. But it's been at the heart of the community since the beginning and I feel comfortable asserting that it is the thing that shapes our culture the most:
The purpose of our community is to make sure this place is okay:
The world isn't okay right now, on a number of levels. And a lot of us believe there is a strong chance it could become dramatically less okay. I've seen people make credible progress on taking responsibility for pieces of our little blue home. But when all is said and done, none of our current projects really give me the confidence that things are going to turn out all right.
Our community was brought together on a promise, a dream, and we have not yet actually proven ourselves worthy of that dream. And to make that dream a reality we need a lot of things.
We need to be able to criticize, because without criticism, we cannot improve.
If we cannot, I believe we will fail.
We need to be able to talk about ideas that are controversial, or uncomfortable - otherwise our creativity and insight will be crippled.
If we cannot, I believe we will fail.
We need to be able to do those things without alienating people. We need to be able to criticize without making people feel untrusted and discouraged from even taking action. We need to be able to discuss challenging things while earnestly respecting the notion that talking about ideas gives those ideas power and has concrete effects on social reality, and sometimes that can hurt people.
If we cannot figure out how to do that, I believe we will fail.
We need more people who are able and willing to try things that have never been done before. To stick with those things long enough to get good at them, to see if they can actually work. We need to help each other do impossible things. And we need to remember to check for and do the possible, boring, everyday things that are in fact straightforward and simple and not very inspiring.
If we cannot manage to do that, I believe we will fail.
We need to be able to talk concretely about what the highest leverage actions in the world are. We need to prioritize those things, because the world is huge and broken and we are small. I believe we need to help each other through a long journey, building bigger and bigger levers, building connections with people outside our community who are undertaking the same journey through different perspectives.
And in the process, we need to not make it feel like if you cannot personally work on those highest leverage things, that you are not important.
There's the kind of importance where we recognize that some people have scarce skills and drive, and the kind of importance where we remember that *every* person has intrinsic worth, and you owe *nobody* any special skills or prestigious sounding projects for your life to be worthwhile.
This isn't just a philosophical matter - I think it's damaging to our mental health and our collective capacity.
We need to recognize that the distribution of skills we tend to reward or punish is NOT just about which ones are actually most valuable - sometimes it is simply founder effects and blind spots.
We cannot be a community for everyone - I believe trying to include anyone with a passing interest in us is a fool's errand. But there are many people who had valuable skills to contribute who have turned away, feeling frustrated and un-valued.
If we cannot find a way to accomplish all of these things at once, I believe we will fail.
The thesis of Project Hufflepuff is that it takes (at least) a village to save a world.
It takes people doing experimental impossible things. It takes caretakers. It takes people helping out with unglorious tasks. It takes technical and emotional and physical skills. And while it does take some people who specialize in each of those things, I think it also needs many people who are least a little bit good at each of them, to pitch in when needed.
Project Hufflepuff is not the only things our community needs, or the most important. But I believe it is one of the necessary things that our community needs, if we're to get to 10x our current Truthseeking, Impact and Human-ing.
If we're to make sure that our home is okay.
The Invisible Badger
"A lone hufflepuff surrounded by slytherins will surely wither as if being leeched dry by vampires."
[Epistemic Status: My evidence for this is largely based on discussions with a few people for whom the badger seems real and valuable, and who report things being different in other communities, as well as some of my general intuitions about society. I'm 75% sure the badger exists, 90% that's it worth leaning into the idea of the badger to see if it works for you, and maybe 55% sure that it's worth trying to see the badger if you can't already make out it's edges.]
If I *had* to pick a clear thing that this conference is about without using Harry Potter jargon, I'd say "Interpersonal dynamics surrounding trust, and how those dynamics apply to each of the Impact/Truth/Human focuses of the rationality community."
I'm not super thrilled with that term because I think I'm grasping more for some kind of gestalt. An overall way of seeing and being that's hard to describe and that doesn't come naturally to the sort of person attracted to this community.
Much like the blind folk and the elephant, who each touched a different part of the animal and came away with a different impression (the trunk seems like a snake, the legs seem like a tree), I've been watching several people in the community try to describe things over the past few years. And maybe those things are separate but I feel like they're secretly a part of the same invisible badger.
Hufflepuff is about hard work, and loyalty, and camaraderie. It's about emotional intelligence. It's about seeing value in day to day things that don't directly tie into epic narratives.
There's a bunch of skills that go into Hufflepuff. And part of want I want is for people to get better at those skills. But I think it's a mindset, an approach, that is fairly different from the typical rationalist mindset, that makes those skills easier. It's something that's harder when you're being rigorously utilitarian and building models of the world out of game theory and incentives.
Mindspace is deep and wide, and I don't expect that mindset to work for everyone. I don't think everyone should be a Hufflepuff. But I do think it'd be valuable to the community if more people at least had access to this mindset and more of these skills.
So what I'd like, for tonight, is for people to lean into this idea. Maybe in the end you'll find that this doesn't work for you. But I think many people's first instinct is going to be that this is alien and uncomfortable and I think it's worth trying to push past that.
The reason we're doing this conference together is because the Hufflepuff way doesn't really work if people are trying to do it alone - I think it requires trust and camaraderie and persistence to really work. I don't think we can have that required trust all at once, but I think if there are multiple people trying to make it work, who can incrementally trust each other more, I think we can reach a place where things run more smoothly, where we have stronger emotional connections, and where we trust each other enough to take on more ambitious projects than we could if we're all optimizing as individuals.
Meta-Meetups Suck. Let's Not.
This unconference is pretty meta - we're talking about norms and vague community stuff we want to change.
Let me tell you, meta meetups are the worst. Typically you end up going around in circles complaining and wishing there were more things happening and that people were stepping up and maybe if you're lucky you get a wave of enthusiasm that lasts a month or so and a couple things happen but nothing really *changes*.
So. Let's not do that. Here's what I want to accomplish and which seems achievable:
1) Establish common knowledge of important ideas and behavior patterns.
Sometimes you DON'T need to develop a whole new skill, you just need to notice that your actions are impacting people in a different way, and maybe that's enough for you to decide to change somethings. Or maybe someone has a concept that makes it a lot easier for you to start gaining a new skill on your own.
2) Establish common knowledge of who's interested in trying which new norms, or which new skills.
We don't actually *know* what the majority of people want here. I can sit here and tell you what *I* think you should want, but ultimately what matters is what things a critical mass of people want to talk about tonight.
Not everyone has to agree that an idea is good to try it out. But there's a lot of skills or norms that only really make sense when a critical mass of other people are trying them. So, maybe of the 40 people here, 25 people are interested in improving their empathy, and maybe another 20 are interested in actively working on friendship skills, or sticking to commitments. Maybe those people can help reinforce each other.
3) Explore ideas for social and skillbuilding experiments we can try, that might help.
The failure mode of Ravenclaws is to think about things a lot and then not actually get around to doing them. A failure mode of ambitious Ravenclaws, is to think about things a lot and then do them and then assume that because they're smart, that they've thought of everything, and then not listen to feedback when they get things subtly or majorly wrong.
I'd like us to end by thinking of experiments with new norms, or habits we'd like to cultivate. I want us to frame these as experiments, that we try on a smaller scale and maybe promote more if they seem to be working, while keeping in mind that they may not work for everyone.
4) Commit to actions to take.
Since the default action is for them to peter out and fail, I'd like us to spend time bulletproofing them, brainstorming and coming up with trigger-action plans so that they actually have a chance to succeed.
Having said all that talk about The Hufflepuff Way...
...the fact is, much of the reason I've used those words is to paint a rough picture to attract the sort of person I wanted to attract to this unconference.
It's important that there's a fuzzy, hard-to-define-but-probably-real concept that we're grasping towards, but it's also important not to be talking past each other. Early on in this project I realized that a few people who I thought were on the same page actually meant fairly different things. Some cared more about empathy and friendship. Some cared more about doing things together, and expected deep friendships to arise naturally from that.
So I'd like us to establish a trigger-action-plan right now - for the rest of this unconference, if someone says "Hufflepuff", y'all should say "What do you mean by that?" and then figure out whatever concrete thing you're actually trying to talk about.
II. Common Knowledge
The first part of the unconference was about sharing our current goals, concerns and background knowledge that seemed useful. Most of the specifics are covered in the notes. But I'll talk here about why I included the things I did and what my takeaways were afterwards on how it worked.
Time to Think
The first thing I did was have people sit and think about what they actually wanted to get out of the conference, and what obstacles they could imagine getting in the way of that. I did this because often, I think our culture (ostensibly about helping us think better) doesn't give us time to think, and instead has people were are quick-witted and conversationally dominant end up doing most of the talking. (I wrote a post a year ago about this, the 12 Second Rule). In this case I gave everyone 5 minutes, which is something I've found helpful at small meetups in NYC.
This had mixed results - some people reported that while they can think well by themselves, in a group setting they find it intimidating and their mind starts wandering instead of getting anything done. They found it much more helpful when I eventually let people-who-preferred-to-talk-to-each-other go into another room to talk through their ideas outloud.
I think there's some benefit to both halves of this and I'm not sure how common which set of preferences are. It's certainly true that it's not common for conferences to give people a full 5 minutes to think so I'd expect it to be someone uncomfortable-feeling regardless of whether it was useful.
But an overall outcome of the unconference was that it was somewhat lower energy than I'd wanted, and opening with 5 minutes of silent thinking seemed to contribute to that, so for the next unconference I run, I'm leaning towards a shorter period of time for private thinking (Somewhere between 12 and 60 seconds), followed by "turn to your neighbors and talk through the ideas you have", followed by "each group shares their concepts with the room."
"What is do you want to improve on? What is something you could use help with?"
I wanted people to feel like active participants rather than passive observers, and I didn't want people to just think "it'd be great if other people did X", but to keep an internal locus of control - what can *I* do to steer this community better? I also didn't want people to be thinking entirely individualistically.
I didn't collect feedback on this specific part and am not sure how valuable others found it (if you were at the conference, I'd be interested if you left any thoughts in the comments). Some anonymized things people described:
- When I make social mistakes, consider it failure; this is unhelpful
- Help point out what they need help with
- Have severe akrasia, would like more “get things done” magic tools
- Getting to know the bay area rationalist community
- General bitterness/burned out
- Reduce insecurity/fear around sharing
- Avoiding spending most words signaling to have read a particular thing; want to communicate more clearly
- Creating systems that reinforce unnoticed good behaviour
- Would like to learn how to try at things
- Find place in rationalist community
- Staying connected with the group
- Paying attention to what they want in the moment, in particular when it’s right to not be persistent
- Would like to know the “landing points” to the community to meet & greet new people
- Become more approachable, & be more willing to approach others for help; community cohesiveness
- Have been lonely most of life; want to find a place in a really good healthy community
- Re: prosocialness, being too low on Maslow’s hierarchy to help others
- Abundance mindset & not stressing about how to pay rent
- Cultivate stance of being able to do helpful things (action stance) but also be able to notice difference between laziness and mental health
- Don’t know how to respect legit safety needs w/o getting overwhelmed by arbitrary preferences; would like to model people better to give them basic respect w/o having to do arbitrary amount of work
- Starting conversations with new people
- More rationalist group homes / baugruppe
- Being able to provide emotional support rather than just logistics help
- Reaching out to people at all without putting too much pressure on them
- Cultivate lifelong friendships that aren’t limited to particular time and place
- Have a block around asking for help bc doesn’t expect to reciprocate; would like to actually just pay people for help w stuff
- Want to become more involved in the community
- Learn how to teach other people “ops skills”
- Connections to people they can teach and who can teach them
Lightning talks are a great way to give people an opportunity to not just share ideas, but get some practice at public presentation (which I've found can be a great gateway tool for overall confidence and ability to get things done in the community). Traditionally they are 5 minutes long. CFAR has found that 3.5 minute lightning talks are better than 5 minute talks, because it cuts out some rambling and tangents.
It turned out we had more people than I'd originally planned time for, so we ended up switching to two minute talks. I actually think this was even better, and my plan for next time is do 1-minute timeslots but allow people to sign up for multiple if they think their talk requires it, so people default to giving something short and sweet.
Rough summaries of the lightning talks can be found in the notes.
III. Discussing the Problem
The next section involved two "breakout session" - two 20 minute periods for people to split into smaller groups and talk through problems in detail. This was done in an somewhat impromptu fashion, with people writing down the talks they wanted to do on the whiteboard and then arranging them so most people could go to a discussion that interested them.
The talks were:
- Welcoming Newcomers
- How to handle people who impose costs on others?
- Styles of Leadership and Running Events
- Making Helping Fun (or at least lower barrier-to-entry)
- Circling session
There was a suggested discussion about outreach, which I asked to table for a future unconference. My reason was that outreach discussions tend to get extremely meta and seem to be an attractor (people end up focusing on how to bring more people into the community without actually making sure the community is good, and I wanted the unconference to focus on the latter.)
I spent some time drifting between sessions, and was generally impressed both with the practical focus each discussion had, as well as the way they were organically moderated.
Again, more details in the notes.
IV. Planning Solutions and Next Actions
After about an hour of discussion and mingling, we came back to the central common space to describe key highlights from each session, and begin making concrete plans. (Names are crediting people who suggested an idea and who volunteered to make it happen)
Creating Norms for Your Space (Jane Joyce, Tilia Bell)
The "How to handle people who impose costs on other" conversation ended up focusing on minor but repeated costs. One of the hardest things to moderate as an event host is not people who are actively disruptive, but people who just a little bit awkward or annoying - they'd often be happy to change their behavior if they got feedback, but giving feedback feels uncomfortable and it's hard to do in a tactful way. This presents two problems at once: parties/events/social-spaces end up a more awkward/annoying than they need to be, and often what happens is that rather than giving feedback, the hosts stop inviting people doing those minor things, which means a lot of people still working on their social skills end up living in fear of being excluded.
Solving this fully requires a few different things at once, and I'm not sure I have a clear picture of what it looks like, but one stepping stone people came up with was creating explicit norms for a given space, and a practice of reminding people of those norms in a low-key, nonjudgmental way.
I think this will require a lot of deliberate effort and practice on the part of hosts to avoid alternate bad outcomes like "the norms get disproportionately enforced on people the hosts like and applied unfairly to people they aren't close with". But I do think it's a step in the right direction to showcase what kind of space you're creating and what the expectations are.
Different spaces can be tailored for different types of people with different needs or goals. (I'll have more to say about this in an upcoming post - doing this right is really hard, I don't actually know of any groups that have done an especially good job of it.)
I *was* impressed with the degree to which everyone in the conversation seemed to be taking into account a lot of different perspectives at once, and looking for solutions that benefited as many people as possible.
Welcoming Committee (Mandy Souza, Tessa Alexanian)
Oftentimes at events you'll see people who are new, or who don't seem comfortable getting involved with the conversation. Many successful communities do a good job of explicitly welcoming those people. Some people at the unconference decided to put together a formal group for making sure this happens more.
The exact details are still under development, but I think the basic idea is to have a network of people who are interested
he idea is to have a group of people who go to different events, playing the role of the welcomer. I think the idea is sort of a "Uber for welcomers" network (i.e. it both provides a place for people running events to go to ask for help with welcoming, and people who are interested in welcoming to find events that need welcomers)
It also included some ideas for better infrastructure, such as reviving "bayrationality.org" to make it easier for newcomers to figure out what events are going on (possibly including links to the codes of conduct for different spaces as well). In the meanwhile, some simple changes were the introduction of a facebook group for Bay Area Rationalist Social Events.
Softskill-sharing Groups (Mike Plotz and Jonathan Wallis)
The leadership styles discussion led to the concept that in order to have a flourishing community, and to be a successful leader, it's valuable to make yourself legible to others, and others more legible to yourself. Even small improvements in an activity as frequent as communication can have huge effects over time, as we make it easier to see each other as we actually are and to clearly exchange our ideas.
A number of people wanted to improve in this area together, and so we’re working towards establishing a series of workshops with a focus on practice and individual feedback. A longer post on why this is important is coming up, and there will be information on the structure of the event after our first teacher’s meeting. If you would like to help out or participate, please fill out this poll:
Circling Explorations (Qiaochu and others)
Much of the discussion at the Unconference, while focused on community, ultimately was explored through an intellectual lens. By contrast, "Circling" is a practice developed by the Authentic Relating community which is focused explicitly on feelings. The basic premise is (sort of) simple: you sit in a circle in a secluded space, and you talk about how you're feeling in the moment. Exactly how this plays out is a bit hard to explain, but the intended result is to become better both at noticing your own feelings and the people around you.
Opinions were divided as to whether this was something that made sense for "rationalists to do on their own", or whether it made more sense to visit more explicitly Circling-focused communities, but several people expressed interest in trying it again.
Making Helping Fun and More Accessible (Suggested by Oliver Habryka)
Ultimately we want a lot of people who are able and excited to help out with challenging projects - to improve our collective group ambition. But to get there, it'd be really helpful to have "gateway helping" - things people can easily pitch in to do that are fun, rewarding, clearly useful but on the "warm fuzzies" side of helping. Oliver suggested this as a way to get people to start identifying as people-who-help.
There were two main sets of habits that worth cultivating:
1) Making it clear to newcomers that they're encouraged to help out with events, and that this is actually a good way to make friends and get more involved.
2) For hosts and event planners, look for opportunities to offer people things that they can help with, and make sure to publicly praise those who do help out.
Some of this might dovetail nicely with the Welcoming Committee, both as something people can easily get involved with, and if there ends up being a public facing website to introduce people to the community, using that to connect people with events that could use help).
Volunteering-as-Learning, and Big Event Specific Workshops
Sometimes volunteering just requires showing up. But sometimes it requires special skills, and some events might need people who are willing to practice beforehand or learn-by-doing with a commitment to help at multiple events.
A vague cluster of skills that's in high demand is "predict logistical snafus in advance to head them off, and notice logistical snafus happening in realtime so you can do something about them." Earlier this year there was an Ops Workshop that aimed to teach this sort of skill, which went reasonably but didn't really lead into a concrete use for the skills to help them solidify.
One idea was to do Ops workshops (or other specialized training) in the month before a major event like Solstice or EA Global, giving them an opportunity to practice skills and making that particular event run smoother.
(This specific idea is not currently planned for implementation as it was among the more ambitious ones, although Brent Dill's series of "practice setting up a giant dome" beach parties in preparation for Burning Man are pointing in a similar direction)
Making Sure All This Actually Happens (Sarah Spikes, and hopefully everyone!)
To avoid the trap of dreaming big and not actually getting anything done, Sarah Spikes volunteered as project manager, creating an Asana page. People who were interested in committing to a deadline could opt into getting pestered by her to make sure things things got done.
V. Parting Words
To wrap up the event, I focused on some final concepts that underlie this whole endeavor.
The thing we're aiming for looks something like this:
In a couple months (hopefully in July), there'll be a followup unconference. The theme will be "Innovation and Excellence", addressing the twofold question "how do we encourage more people to start cool projects", and "how to do we get to a place where longterm projects ultimately reach a high quality state?"
Both elements feel important to me, and they require somewhat different mindsets (both on the part of the people running the projects, and the part of the community members who respond to them). Starting new things is scary and having too high standards can be really intimidating, yet for longterm projects we may want to hold ourselves to increasingly high standards over time.
My current plan (subject to lots of revision) is for this to become a series of community unconferences that happen roughly every 3 months. The Bay area is large enough with different overlapping social groups that it seems worthwhile to get together every few months and have an open-structured event to see people you don't normally see, share ideas, and get on the same page about important things.
Current thoughts for upcoming unconference topics are:
- Innovation and Excellence
- Personal Epistemic Hygiene
- Group Epistemology
An important piece of each unconference will be revisiting things at the previous one, to see if projects, ideas or experiments we talked about were actually carried out and what we learned from them (most likely with anonymous feedback collected beforehand so people who are less comfortable speaking publicly have a chance to express any concerns). I'd also like to build on topics from previous unconferences so they have more chance to sink in and percolate (for example, have at least one talk or discussion about "empathy and trust as related to epistemic hygiene").
Starting and Finishing Unconferences Together
My hope is to get other people involved sooner rather than later so this becomes a "thing we are doing together" rather than a "thing I am doing." One of my goals with this is also to provide a platform where people who are interested in getting more involved with community leadership can take a step further towards that, no matter where they currently stand (ranging anywhere from "give a 30 second lightning talk" to "run a discussion, or give a keynote talk" to "be the primary organizer for the unconference.")
I also hope this is able to percolate into online culture, and to other in-person communities where a critical mass of people think this'd be useful. That said, I want to caution that I consider this all an experiment, motivated by an intuitive sense that we're missing certain things as a culture. That intuitive sense has yet to be validated in any concrete fashion. I think "willingness to try things" is more important than epistemic caution, but epistemic caution is still really important - I recommend collecting lots of feedback and being willing to shift direction if you're trying anything like the stuff suggested here.
(I'll have an upcoming post on "Ways Project Hufflepuff could go horribly wrong")
Most importantly, I hope this provides a mechanism for us to collectively take ideas more seriously that we're ostensibly supposed to be taking seriously. I hope that this translates into the sort of culture that The Craft and The Community was trying to point us towards, and, ideally, eventually, a concrete sense that our community can play a more consistently useful role at making sure the world turns out okay.
If you have concerns, criticism, or feedback, I encourage you to comment here if you feel comfortable, or on the Unconference Feedback Form. So far I've been erring on the side of move forward and set things in motion, but I'll be shifting for the time being towards "getting feedback and making sure this thing is steering in the right direction."
In addition to the people listed throughout the post, I'd like to give particular thanks to Duncan Sabien for general inspiration and a lot of concrete help, Lahwran for giving the most consistent and useful feedback, and Robert Lecnik for hosting the space.
Here's a thought experiment:
There's a social club in town. You're inspired by their online presence, so you decide to sign up. The website looks polished. You notice the agenda on the sidebar is full of events as you fill in the form to sign up. You send the form, and hope for the best. A few hours later, you receive an email. "Congratulations! You are eligible for the selection process." You rejoice. Then comes the selection day. There is a terrifying interview and you are tested for all kinds of things. Luckily, you make it through! The next day, you receive a phone call. A warm voice greets you. "Congratulations! Your initiation period starts now. For the upcoming eight weeks, there will be many social activities for the new initiates. We expect you to be there. On top of that, we will find you a house, and invite you to choose a role in one of our committees. You are also now welcome in our community space, which is open 24/7. All of that will end with the initiation ceremony when you receive your bracelet and become a full member."
Would you feel welcome in this club? Would you want to participate?
This is an exaggerated version of how student societies work in the Netherlands. I think there are a few elements in there that make it work.
Feels like there's a lot of low hanging fruit to gather by looking at existing communities.
I think something like this would probably be good to exist if it were done right (with "done right" doing some nontrivial work in the sentence). One problem is that once you get to doing something this elaborate, people will probably have strong and different opinions about what "right" looks like.
(i.e. right now, there's a sense in which it doesn't matter that much if there's a community schism, people can still just keep hanging out with whoever, but if groups are more formalized and require a lot of investment to keep running at these standards, a schism would be more damaging).
There's also the fact that rationalists are selected for being averse to this sort of thing. See the amount of pushback Duncan is getting for a very small opt-in experiment. I imagine the thing you're describing being less extreme than Dragon Army barracks, but also being much more comprehensive)
Maybe in retrospect it would have been wiser to try to form success spirals of increasingly ambitious projects?
I don't think that would have solved this particular problem. Each individual person was capable enough to choose the project they choose. A lot of people worked together on the startup Metamed, and I (don't think?) anyone regrets the experience per se - starting a company is going to be risky no matter how skilled you are, and people did in fact learn a lot from the experience.
The problem was not that some people failed, the problem was that everyone failed at the same time.
(Different people who started different companies may have different experiences, and in some cases a smaller project may have been appropriate, but it didn't seem like the case for the company founders at least)
The biggest challenge with getting projects done within the Less Wrong community will always be that people have incredibly different ideas of what should be done. Everyone has their own ideas, few people want to join in other people's ideas. Will definitely be interested to see how things turn out after 3 months.
Re: group houses and people leaving owing money. I’ve just fallen victim to another example of this. At the Kernel Project, of all places - https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/wmEcNP3KFEGPZaFJk/the-craft-and-the-community-a-post-mortem-and-resurrection - a community with the stated aim of setting down long term, multigenerational roots (in Manchester, UK)! All 3 of the others left the group house unannounced at the end of the tenancy, whilst I was away, owing me approx. £3000 between them. The violation of this most basic of social norms leads me to conclude that the Kernel Project (like others before it) is now doomed. Now that it is regarded as acceptable, amongst those who remain, to screw people over on rent and bills, what’s to stop it happening again and again, until no one will go near the project? Such a grand vision, trashed for a such a small short term gain. I’m finding it hard to believe to be honest. This blind spot when it comes to such basic game theoretical considerations involving trust, reputation and appropriate risks. Why are physical rationalist communities so prone to it? It’s so irrational.